One of the most common things that people say when trying to understand how an action might affect another person is to say, “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” Recent research, however, demonstrates that putting yourself in another’s shoes may not be the best way to understand how that person views your actions.
According to psychologist, Jeremy Dean, we normally try to work out how we are viewed by others by thinking about how we view ourselves, then extrapolating from that. The problem with this approach, says Dean, is that to varying degrees we all suffer from an ‘egocentric bias:’ we think we’re at the center of the world and everything is about us. We shouldn’t be blamed for this — it’s a natural consequence of the fact that we’re locked inside our own heads.
However, other people aren’t limited by our own perceptions of ourselves. They see us from an outside perspective. So why is it that we are so incorrect in judging how others view us. According to Dean, part of the reason that we get it wrong so often is that that we follow the advice to put ourselves in others’ shoes in order to understand their perspective.
According to the new research by researchers Eyal and Epley (2010), it may be better to use abstract thinking to get a better view of the way others see you. In one experiment, the researchers split their participants into two groups to compare their ability to view themselves from the outside. Participants were trying to judge how attractive they were to another person. The first group adopted the standard tactic of putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, while the second group was asked to imagine they would be rated by the other person in several months’ time.
People trying to put themselves in the other person’s shoes were awful at the task.
But when participants thought about their future selves, a technique that encourages abstract thinking, their accuracy increased considerably, although not perfect.
The reality is that we cannot see the forest from the trees when it comes to perceptions of how others view ourselves, says Dean. But allowing ourselves to think in broad terms and abstractly lets us realize that there is a forest and not just trees; and in turn, we have a better understanding of the trees.
This technique of abstract thinking may be helpful in the mediation context. Specifically, when a person has a hard time of evaluating the matter from another perspective, it might be helpful to have them first think about abstract concepts. For example, asking a client to think about the value of lawsuits in society, or the value of juries in society, might just start that person towards thinking about how a jury might react to his or her case.
Eyal, T. & Epley, N. (2010). How to Seem Telepathic: Enabling Mind Reading by Matching Construal. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610367754.